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The Protector of Citizens Zoran Pašalić was the guest on the show of “Kurir” Television.

We have in the studio the Protector of Citizens Zoran Pašalić. Good afternoon and thank you for coming. We can see that you issued a statement for the today’s issue of “Kurir” daily, it is highlighted here in the subheading – I saw a resident lying in feces – and added that for the final conclusion it is necessary to do a detailed analysis, which we learned is planned to happen. What did you see, in what moments were you the witness of all that and was there anything that could have done about it earlier?

- We have been monitoring this problem with the accommodation not just of children but also of adults at the home-type institutions since the establishment. In 2019 we paid 13 visits to all homes, in 2020 it was slightly paused due to covid situation and in 2021 so far – seven visits, in 2020 we issued about 25 recommendations – 10 recommendations were executed, 13 are monitored due to their long execution deadline and 2 of them haven’t been acted upon. I personally visited such homes, home-type institutions and I saw there what I said in the article in your newspapers. It is important not to present it as a sensation, but to initiate solving of this problem thoroughly. I stated, I don’t know how much of that your colleague put in the article, because I didn’t have time to read the article, which problems are so that the conditions could be radically improved, not just of children nut also of the adults accommodated in home-type institutions. All one department of the Protector of Citizens – the National Preventive Mechanism is constantly visiting and controlling, both upon the reports of citizens and on their own initiative. I personally paid visits to several such institutions, both announced and unannounced and what I concluded is that the lack of staff is a key factor. That is what is the most important because in this manner I would like to praise those employees, most frequently women who perform a very arduous physical and mental work. Physically, because they need to help them or to take care of a great number of residents, and there is not a sufficient number of them. Moreover, you need to have a special empathy in order to perform that job. And surely, I am not a representative of their trade union, but they should be rewarded in an adequate manner for the job they perform, and which is, I repeat, very, very demanding both physically and mentally. The second thing is the contact. Children and adults, but primarily children have parents, have relatives and there is the question of encouraging relatives and parents to have a constant contact. I was present during one conversation when two boys, it is not of importance in which home, talked about who came to visit them the last time. They didn’t have parents. The Center for Social Work outside the place of that institution had the competence to visit them, and then one of them said – mines were two years ago, and the other one, so pleased that in his case it is more frequent, said – mines were six months ago. The care of these children is not just the care about accommodation, but the care of the entire society. Don’t take this as a cliché because here – when was the last time you heard about these places, now when they reached the level of sensation, and it occurs every day, we visit them every day, employees take care about these children every day, and it should be under constant attention.

Before you joined us in the studio, I just commented that with my colleague – before it reached the media, it was not talked about, as you have just said, but before it reached the media, from 2019 to 2021, has anything changed, has anything significant been done?

- Yes, it has changed.

We can see that the Ministry says “provide evidence on child abuse”. Isn’t this what is stated in the research sufficient for evidence?

- When we say child abuse, you will hear about child abuse either from children or if someone uninvolved reports the case, these are frequently anonymous reports, we have such reports and we act upon them. You will never be in the situation, regardless of how long you organize an unannounced visit and come at the time when you guess an abuse could take place in order to witness one such event. It is not just about child abuse, it is about the conditions in which these children live. That is the essence. Here we talked about children with special needs, physical and other shortcomings, we were in touch both with those who have physical shortcomings and those who have mental problems. In such contacts I realized that they need attention, primarily attention. Everything else may be neglected, but the attention is primarily what they expect and what they seek and what they miss. When I say attention, it is the organization of what they believe could contribute to their more normal life. These are the gatherings attended not just by people dealing with this matter, but also good people who wish to help. I will not talk individually now about people from the sphere of art who accepted the invitations to organize some programs for them which meant a lot to them. Some would say – I am talking about this, when the topic is about dying children or suffering children or children living non-hygienic conditions. This is all a part of one story. This is all a story which, as I told your colleague, includes one more, more radical approach to solving of their problems.

Now when you said attention, we have seen through all this conversation during the previous days that many children went through forced separation from their parents, maybe sometimes even without a valid reason, let’s put it that way, and perhaps instead it could have been worked on the empowerment of these families, which more frequently came from poorer parts of society, so, do you think that both as the society and as the system we may do something else to avoid having children in these institutions and in such conditions, because, also, it is stated that as one of the solutions it can simlply be to stop the reception of children in such homes?

- You opened one topic which is very important and that is the relationship between children and their close ones – family and relatives. I will not open now another very serious topic, which is the accommodation of children whose property is handled by their relatives and who are accommodated there because their legal and business capability was taken from them and this property is at the disposal of someone else without taking care of these children, without visiting them and showing any interest in them. There are so many topics. I really don’t want to put emphasis just on what was stated in the report which caused the public commotion, but on what I said, and I believe is the essence, which is a deep analysis of each and every of these factors which influence the position of these children.

The Initiative for the rights of persons with mental disability, which published publication, suggests complete shutdown of these institutions, as you say, especially for children younger than 3 years of age because, as they say, they should be with their biological family or with relatives, and it is not legally allowed. They suggest the complete shutdown, starting over and then to see what and how, but also that they be completely out of function.

- With all due respect, I could have suggested that myself, but let’s analyze then every individual child. Does their biological or primary family want to accept them as they are at all? Declaratively maybe yes, but if that is the case, why aren’t these children visited more frequently by their close ones?

What would be a solution to the entire situation, which now reached the media and we all now expect to see that it is being worked on because if we did not see it in the previous period, because it was not in the media and we were not aware what was happening and it is obviously about the forgotten children of Serbia, what do you see as a solution? We mentioned here for several times that it is necessary to have a systemic association, not just one ministry to deal with this issue.

- One ministry alone cannot deal with that, it is such a complex topic, here you have also the elements I stated previously, which may refer both to the Ministry of Justice and to the operation of courts, there is a series of factors. But first it should be taken into consideration how many residents are there and whether all residents accommodated there really should be accommodated at such institutions, or are accommodated there, I apologize but I need to say that, just so that they would be “one problem less” for someone, regardless of who that could be. Moreover, who of them could be returned or accommodated or taken to the family called the primary family. Then, who of these children may be, as there are the cases in certain home-type institutions, accommodated at special units where they can get organized themselves and have the capacity to live in a community of several children, that is one of factors. That is just to avoid these home-type conditions, nobody loves home-type conditions in any form. People don’t like hospitals, let alone this. Furthermore, to see for the ones, pardon me, remaining, how many employees and what employee structure is needed. Not to burden that one such person, and I have seen it with my own eyes, deal with 30-40 residents. How? They all need diaper change, they need help with their personal hygiene, not to talk about nutrition and everything else. And then, what is the quality of these persons in terms of the analysis of their knowledge and skills, and if needed trainings. And I repeat, I am really not the president of their trade union, but it is adequate to reward them for an extremely hard work. Because what matters…

And you see that a solution there is possible?

- The fluctuation of this staff is enormous. People work, stay there for some time and leave… Well, it is possible, it is certainly possible. These are not huge requests, but the problem should be approached in a realistic manner. I am sure that it can be solved and that it will be solved. The purpose of all this is not to disturb the public, but to solve this problem.

Now we here from the Ministry of Social Affairs and the thing you said that this grew to be sensationalism and that it perhaps is not or is true as it was stated in the report, but something is exaggerated, so since you were there, is anything exaggerated?

- That would then be the evaluation of someone’s report, which is not in my scope of work. Generally, everyone’s entitled to deal with a specific topic to provide their report, I am not entitled to evaluations, especially I am not entitled to evaluate the institutions you call non-governmental organizations, that is associations dealing with specific issues. For me, it is important that what we notice in these constant visits through recommendations to competent institutions gives result and that they act upon our recommendations. As I said, there were 25 recommendations, 10 were acted upon, 2 were not at all, and we monitor 13. Note that it is not a small number for one year, I am not saying it is sufficient, but what is important for us is that there is an advancement and not to have this advancement in 10 years, but as fast as possible.

And what is your comment to this statement that evidence should be submitted, let’s briefly return to that, do you think that the first would…

- You should ask that the person who said it, not me, please.

And do you think that the first step should be to go there?

- Thank you for giving me such importance that I can comment on the statements of the entire world, but there is absolutely no need for me to give my comments to that.

What I meant to say is whether the first step should be to go there and check all that instead of asking for evidence. So, we are still sitting back and doing nothing and just waiting for someone else to do something.

- There is no need to go, I can say or employees of the Protector of Citizens who watch that every day can say it. They are the ones who talk about that, they write recommendations and insist on acting upon the recommendations. Now, if I were a statistician or if I wanted to improve the reputation of the institution, I would say that if there were 25 recommendations, and 10 were acted upon, that is almost 50 percent. But we are not satisfied with that. If 100 percent is not acted upon, what is the point?

Thank you for your time and this conversation. And so we hope that everything will be the way you suggested, that we will reach the solution to this problem.

- I am convinced that we will, if everyone does their part of the job.

Exactly. And this should be initiated as soon as possible.